Book 3: Aranya Kanda

In The Forest
Shayne Dahl

In the days following Bharata’s departure, the rsis were scattered along the banks of the river with their backs turned to the exiled wanderers. Curious, Rama approached and asked them if he or his companions had caused them discomfort. With a broken voice, an elder sage replied, “We are silenced not by our grievance towards you three but in fear of Khara, the demon cousin of Ravana of Lanka.” He performs grotesque rituals with dark intentions. Khara and his minions befoul our yajnas with their black magic. “Rama, Laksmana and Sita, be wise and please abandon this inauspicious site.” The three heeded this request.
They felt more and more the loneliness akin to exile the further they moved into the wilderness. Just when the comfort of reconciliation settled their apprehensions, the rotten stench of a raksasa burned putrid in their nostrils. Obstructing their path, the demon stood tall as a tree. With a gangrene face thickly layered in flies and maggots, it grabbed Sita and grunted disgustingly. ” I have Brahma’s boon! I am invincible to your weapons! I want your blood!” Casually, Rama filled its chest with arrows and Laksmana sliced away its appendages. Severed stumps wriggled pathetically as it lay in a puddle of tar-black blood. Realizing the truth of its claim to Brahma’s boon, Rama and Laksmana grabbed the neck to strangle it. They brought the demon to a violent gurgle, then death.

A cascading light became abruptly visible upon the creature’s demise. A face formed, then a body above the already decayed torso. “I was cursed by Kubera ages ago to incarnate as a demon. He told me I would be freed by Rama’s hands and return to Devaloka in time to come. Please, bury this torso so I may return to Devaloka. Also, direct your travels to Sarabhanga’s asrama. He will bless you as fate requires.” They cured his demonic imprisonment by burying the bloody torso. They then continued their wanderings.

Not far from Sarabhanga’s asrama, they saw a great chariot manned by the master and god of war. He slowed to halt just before the asrama. The blue prince ran to him under the setting sun, excited as any in sight of an incredible one like Indra. Before he was near enough to be heard, Indra had already left and blazed into the sky. As they left, Indra spoke these words to his Devas: “Rama and I are not to meet before the great event of his life and of this world, lest the natural course of things be interrupted.”

Sarabhanga was delighted to see the forest wanderers. He explained that Indra visited as an escort. Together, they would travel to Brahmaloka (one of two spiritual realms; the other being Devaloka), for his enlightenment was imminent. Then, Sarabhanga asked for Rama’s blessing and walked into the flames of the pyre his disciples had built him. He vanished in the heavy flames and a streak of light raised to the sky as petals rained briefly. Sarabhanga’s disciples then begged Rama to help them for their fear of the raksasas‘ had become a distraction in mind they could not evade even while seated in the deepest meditation. Rama looked each of the disciples keenly in the eye and said, “I promise you, we will destroy these demons. Dissolve your fear. Those causing your distress will fall to our weapons like deadweight from the sky.” Rama, Sita and Laksmana trekked on into the night; hell-ridden grunts and snarls littered the moonless sky. They arrived at Sutiksna’s asrama in days passing.

There, they were greeted kindly with beverages and food. While Rama and Laksmana were enjoying their stay, Sita was troubled. Rama inquired and she answered, “Why did you promise to slay the raksasas of the jungle? This is their home! They have not harmed you specifically; therefore, it is adharmic for you to end them. You are powerful and should not act violently when unprovoked.” Smiling, he responded, “My love, I am a ksatriya; therefore it is my dharma to protect those incapable of protecting themselves. I will not kill unprovoked. But Sita, you must reconsider your definition of provocation. The prayers of the rsis keep sanctity in this world alight. If I do not accomplish my dharma as a ksatriya and rid the forest of these rank demons, how will the earth maintain its divinity?! Fate has brought us here with deep intentions; my burning heart tells me so. I love you, please trust me.” Her daunting expressions faded to a smile when the avatara’s eyes glowed in honesty.

Ten years passed as quickly as a midnight dream. The raksasas now ailed at the thought of Rama and Laksmana, for these two had filled many black hearts with sharp arrows and decapitated the flyblown heads of the blood-thirsty effortlessly. Sita further developed a gift she was given by the gods. She could understand and communicate with the jungle creatures easily and took pleasure in doing so. After much wandering between asramas, learning of and slaying demons, the three returned to Sutiksna’s asrama. There, Rama explained to Sutiksna how he searched for Agastya Muni’s asrama ill-successfully. Sutiksna shared with him the directions and sent them with his blessing.

Stories of Agastya Muni’s power were discussed along the way. Upon arrival, Agastya Muni gave Rama weapons and armour that was given him by Indra as a gift. “You will need these, as well as a chariot for the great battles with evil, holy one. The fear you’ve instilled in the fanged and dark hearted has inspired their demonic thirst for human blood to intensify. They wish to fill their stomachs before your weapons cleave their dreadful faces. Go to Pancavati and tread your destiny.” With his blessing, they left.

On their way, rustles were heard in the branches above. Laksmana aligned his aiming eye towards the movement and prepared an arrow. A voice was heard, “Please refrain; I am a friend of Dasaratha’s.” Laksmana lowered his defensive response and a marvellous, well-sized eagle descended with soft flapping wings, “I am Jatayu. Your course of direction is dangerous. Please, accept me as a guardian. When you and Laksmana go out and hunt, I will watch over your wife Sita.” Rama replied, “Thank you noble one. We gladly accept your gesture and your friendship.”

They walked on and found an auspicious location to build an asrama. Sita would request tasks of the animals and they gladly performed them, for they loved her. One day, after they had settled comfortably, the most rancid smell wafted into the asrama and razed, among other natural beauties, a good number of lotus flowers. No sooner did Rama, Laksmana and Sita look up did there appear a wretched raksasi.

She was inflamed at the sight of Rama’s handsome face. “I am Surpanakha, sister of Ravana,” she spouted with a raspy hiss, “I live with Khara, my cousin. I am powerful and I want you for my husband. Lose this woman and be with me, I can shape-shift into any beauty you prefer.” “I am sorry, I’m married,” Rama replied kindly, “However, my brother Laksmana is single and better looking than I. Why don’t you pursue him instead?” Desperately, she turned to Laksmana and rubbed his chest with her grimy fingers. He denied her sarcastically; “I’m just a servant and you are a princess. Try my brother again. He will leave her for you!” She became ferociously jealous and charged Sita. Laksmana swiftly maimed her with his sword, causing much of her face to appear as scraped bone and torn muscle.

She ran home to her cousin who was enraged at the sight of his pained sibling. “Who did this?! I will make him howl like tortured child. Craving the taste of his own death, he will be murdered slowly!!” Immediately, fourteen of Khara’s toughest warriors were sent to complete the deed.

Seeing the bat-like demons approaching in the night sky, Rama stamped his foot as loud as thunder. “Unless you wish to greet death in vain, leave now.” They screamed piercingly from above and began a sharp descent. Rama released serpentine weapons with precision and brought them to the ground, where their bodies twitched a few moments, then became limp. Astonished, Surpanakha reported what she had witnessed to Khara. He raged like the wickedest storm, “Show me the faces of these arrogant fools so I can take pleasure in smashing them to death and send them skyward to their ancestors!!! I will bring a thousand raksasas for each one killed!”

Rama sent Laksmana with Sita to take cover in a nearby cave. He sensed the coming battle would be unlike any before. As they left, the forest dwelling animals retreated and the gods gathered above Pancavati; they too were aware of the coming battle.

Khara and his armies arrived with the anger of hell empowering their will. Fiercely and without warning, they attacked. Transforming the evening sky into a blur of weaponry, their pointed violence aimed towards Rama, as lightning to a steel rod. Tridents, arrows and javelins fell on him like a world ending meteor shower, some scathing his flesh. However, none wounded Rama because he wore immaculate armour. His response was quicker than light, arms madly rotating from quiver to bow; soft mantra whispers were heard invoking astras, which aided his strike with supernatural blessings. The sound of demon corpses thudding to the ground was deafening and shook the jungle like a mighty earthquake. At times, Rama would call upon astras capable of turning one arrow into a fiery thousand with accuracy rarely dreamt of. Drenched in thick black blood and tolerating the rotting stench, he stood valiantly, god incarnate.

Dushana, Khara’s brother, swooped out of the fleets, casting flaming trees, boulders and fire-spitting serpents at Rama. Rama evaded their aim and ended Dushana’s life with four quick arrows to the heart. Khara attacked next; striking Rama three times before the blue one sent his horses enough arrows to crash his chariot. Rama jumped and cut up Khara’s charioteer. Khara split Rama’s bow and sprung at him with a heavy mace. Rama warned, “Your craving for death is like a deep lust, I will send you there!” He accurately shot twenty blazing arrows at Khara and they nestled deep in his back, arms and stomach. No sooner did he tear them out of his flesh did Rama send an arrow with a supreme mantra whisper to the center of Khara’s chest where it struck and, alas, felled the raksasa. Excited for Rama’s triumph, the Devas rained petals, magically cleansing the bloodied earth of demon entrails.

A raksasa who narrowly escaped fled to Lanka and relayed the defeat to the ten-headed Ravana. Ravana could not believe that a human single-handedly destroyed his warrior cousin and his legions. Even after stories of Rama’s mass slaying met Ravana’s ears, he casually stated, “I will go and kill him and his companions where they stand.” The raksasa warned against it and proposed that he lure Rama to Lanka by kidnapping Sita, Rama’s wife. Ravana recognized the wisdom in this scheme and planned to leave the following morning.

The great evil one took to his chariot and flew to Marica, his uncle who was once a raksasa but since had become a rsi. Seeing the troubled look on Ravana’s face he asked, “What has happened my nephew?” Ravana explained the situation and the vengeful plan to kidnap Sita. “He is noble therefore he will die in absence of his love. I need your help uncle,” explained Ravana. Wisely, Marica responded, “Whoever devised the plan is a fool. Rama is no one to be challenged! He has slain all the raksasas who have crossed his path in vain. Be wise and yield or you will be destroyed.” Ravana trusted his uncle and returned to Lanka.

Surpanakha approached her great brother and scolded him like he had never heard; “You’re indulgent and not fit to rule. Your kingdom laughs behind your back while you become arrogant in the bedroom! A mere human desecrated your troops and you refuse to act.” Even while she described the dominance that the Ayodhya prince demonstrated in battle against his raksasas, Ravana seemed unmoved. She knew he was as lustful as an unruly beast and she wanted the three companions dead, so she altered her discourse to whet Ravana’s appetite. “Rama’s wife is heaven sent. Her skin would feel so smooth beneath your fingertips. Her eyes are mini-galaxies waiting to see you and love you openly in your bed. I tried to take her for you but I was maimed. Go capture her for your harem, she waits to realize and adore your vast power.” Ravana’s lust bore through the logic that his uncle had previously instilled. He was determined to have Rama’s princess be his own.

As he flew his chariot to Marica’s, Ravana fantasized about the beautiful Sita Supanakha described. Ravana told his uncle the details of his scheme once again, this time more forcefully. “You will, by the powers of maya, transform into a golden deer, which will entice the lovely Sita. She will request Rama and Laksmana to seize it for her. Then, you lead them deep into the forest while I kidnap the princess.” Marica attempted, at first, to sway his nephew by warning him otherwise but with every word he spoke, the expressions on Ravana’s ten heads became angered and reddened. Knowing his nephew’s wrath, Marica decided it best to commit the act, even though in dhyana he knew it to be adharmic. To Pancavati they flew.

Ravana and his uncle landed in a forest clearing nearby Rama’s asrama. Reluctantly, Marica made himself into a shining golden deer. Ravana admired Marica’s siddhi (supernormal powers) and sent the golden deer on its way with a slap. All the forest creatures smelt the sorcery beneath the hide of the animal and stayed clear of its stench.

Sita was awe-struck with Marica’s creation. She dropped her basket and called to the deer. Unmoved by her words, it wandered elsewhere. She called the brothers. Rama was bewildered but Laksmana knew intuitively that the deer was not as it appeared to be. He shared his suspicion with Rama, who considered Laksmana’s insight, yet was still compelled to capture this majestic animal for his wife. “If it is evil, I will kill it. If not, I will capture it. Watch over Sita, I will return shortly,” Rama said to his hesitant brother. Then he spirited after the deer into the neighbouring woods.

After an hour of sporadic chasing, Rama realized it was no ordinary stag but an enemy in disguise for its movements were like no thing of the natural world. He spun an arrow and pierced the target in the heart. It transformed back to Marica and with a last breath cried in a voice identical to Rama’s, “Laksmana! Laksmana! Help me!” Sita’s heart nearly stopped at the sound of her husband’s voice screaming a near death cry. “Go to him Laksmana, save him! Save him!” Being wise, Lakshmana knew his brother was not inferior to any opposition so he refused and attempted to console Sita. In a panic attempt, she spoke harsh words to him, accusing him of coveting her, “You want him to die don’t you Laksmana?! You want him to die so I will be your wife!! Go to him now or I will kill myself!” Confused and hurt by her words, Laksmana defied his intuition and ran to the woods. Before leaving, he cast a magical barrier at the door of the asrama that no one could enter unless Sita allowed. With legs furiously pumping and sweat pouring down his dark face, Laksmana ran through the woods to the illusory call.

Meanwhile, Ravana approached the asrama disguised as a holy man. When he saw Sita, he nearly collapsed at the sight of her delicate face. He loved her that instant. Barely managing to voice a word, he softly asked, “Who are you? You are so beautiful. Are you a goddess? You should abandon this area; the raksasas are dangerous here. Why are you alone?” He seemed harmless to Sita at the time. He was aged and appeared to host great wisdom, like most other rsis she met over her ten years in the jungle. Foolishly, she invited him in, “Come and sit with me.”

She explained her identity to him and he loved to hear what he already knew come from her tantalizing lips. He imagined pursuing her right then in the asrama but he unmasked himself instead, knowing that if he were to capture her he had to act fast. “I am Ravana of Lanka,” his body transformed, she was disgusted and afraid. “Come to Lanka with me, be my queen. You would be a jewel in the ocean. Leave the foolish human; I am the ruler of worlds.” She refused him mockingly, “If my husband sees you here, he will fill your black heart with arrows and you will only know pain.” At once, his ten heads licked their lips and he was aroused, caught once again in his fantasy of her naked body. She saw this twisted gesture and ran for the door. He snatched her quickly with a hiss. She cried to the animals, “Tell Rama and Laksmana what has happened; that Ravana of Lanka has taken me by force!!!” His decorative chariot flew to the south as she wailed madly, pounding her fists against his hard chest.

Jatayu, perched in the trees nearby, heard her alarmed scream and launched toward them. “Rama is king! You will suffer for your actions, selfish demon!” Although he was old and near blind, he directed his jagged claws and swooped with a guttural cry to the center head of Ravana. Raking the raksasa’s back, Jatayu shot his talons at a pair of eyes. Black blood sprayed like hellish rain over the earth and his chariot plummeted to destruction. Jatayu was tired but determined. He mustered up all of his strength and dove at the stunned raksasa like a heavy comet. Ravana drew his smooth weapon and cut off Jatayu’s wings, mid-flight.

Sita wailed, for she knew the devotion of Jatayu was of the truest kind. She went to hold him as he struggled for breath but the beast from Lanka muscled her and took to the sky. Flying over a mountain, she saw monkeys gathered atop. “Rama, Laksmana,” she cried, “Help!!!” Then, she loosened her necklace, took out her earrings, ripped a piece of her sari off and let them fall to the jungle dwellers.

As soon as they entered Ravana’s palace in Lanka, Ravana smiled perversely. His excitement was interrupted by Sita. “You are a thief. My husband will level your city and bring you to your knees. You are a coward and a fool for what you have done!” He replied confidently, “You will love me because I can give you what no forest dweller can dream; a power over nations. He is weak and ill-minded. This is why I seized you so easily. Forget him, he is already dead.” Her eyes winced and tears swelled, “My Rama will?” Ravana interrupted with a wrathful tone, “You will accept my love because none have been offered it in the passing ages. If you do not receive me within one year, I will cut up your body as you live and consume it with delight!” He walked out of the room, each step a crack of thunder.

Meanwhile, back in Panchavati, Laksmana and Rama had met up in the forest. They realized their folly and sprinted back to the asrama. Rama scolded Laksmana for leaving Sita, regardless her rash words towards him. They searched all over for her, uncovering no hint of what happened. “None suffer as I do now, brother,” Rama mumbled, “Everything has been stripped from me and I am sorrowful because of it! Sita is nowhere. Surely she has been taken from us by an evil one.” When a deer approached, Laksmana came to his knees and pleaded, for the animals knew and loved her equally. The empathetic deer raised its nose along with the other forest creatures towards the south. The Ayodhya princes left soon thereafter.

Southbound, they saw pools of blood and came across the fatally wounded Jatayu. Immediately, they knew there had been a battle. Rama was infuriated. He cursed and raged and threatened to destroy the universe. Laksmana was frightened and calmed him. “You should find those responsible and deliver their karma. Calm yourself brother, I beg you. Suffering exists in the lives of all of us, even the greatest ones whom you admire.” Rama slowed his furor.

Just as he did, Jatayu called out his last words, “Go south… a powerful raksasa took Sita there.” Rama knelt by his side, crying. “I fought him… he is Visrava’s son, Kubera’s brother…” The great eagle exhaled a life ending sigh and passed. To honour Jatayu’s devotion, Rama and Laksmana built him a pyre and lit his wounded shell. White light sparked and flew gently to the sky with wings.

Moving south, Rama and Laksmana noticed a cave. Inside was a strange and desperate one named Kabandha. He was a greasy monster with scabbed stumps for legs and severed bloodied wrists for hands. He cried, “I am blessed today! Cursed by a hermit to be the monster you see before you and maimed by Indra whom I offended, I have awaited your arrival. Burn this body and free me. My name was Dhanu.” Rama spoke sternly, “Do you know of my wife’s abduction? Her name is Sita and she was taken by a demon.” “I used to know all things,” he replied, “If you release me of this burden I will reclaim that knowledge and help you find Sita.” They burned his freakish body and in the smoke raised a shining spirit. He said “Go meet with Sugriva, prince of the vanaras. He lives on the mountain called Rsyamuka. Fate intends for you two to meet. Both of you will benefit from your fellowship.” Then, he gave directions and leapt into the sky.

Nearing Rsyamuka, the twins became more relaxed. They spotted a calm clear lake that brought tranquility to their rigid state. Along the shoreline they paused because Rama wept like a dark cloud; “Lovers should never be separated during spring months. How am I to last even a few days in her absence?” Rama went on grieving until Laksmana wisely interrupted, “Brother, fate has thrown us here for a greater destiny. You know in your heart just as I that our dharma is to follow this painful road and respond intelligently to the coming obstructions. You are no ordinary human, Rama. You are capable of feats no god could accomplish. Trust that there is a meaning for your sorrow which extends beyond the immediate moment.” Rama smiled, “Without you Laksmana, I would have been laid waste by my own wrath. Let us wilfully seek Rsyamuka and meet the foretold Sugriva.”

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